Hammering out the comedy


By Wendy Graham

Tom HoltI’m probably quite an old fashioned journalist. I still use a notebook and shorthand to conduct interviews face to face. Sometimes I get modern with a tape recorder, but I don’t hold with question and answer interviews – I think that they are lazy. So.. here I am in the twenty-first century, doing a question and answer interview via email.

Debutante victim/author was Tom Holt. I started by introducing myself. It seemed the politest thing, when barging into a person’s computer.


I confessed that I teach law, since Holt is a qualified solicitor (a lawyer, who was in practice in the English county of Somerset for seven years, before deciding to concentrate on writing. He was generous. He forgave me.

TH ‘It's OK. There's still time. Recent statistics show that up to 32% of lawyers make at least a partial recovery after appropriate therapy and can sometimes be trained to do simple tasks. Many of them go on to lead happy, useful lives.

WG ‘does producing FTL count as useful? What do you do that is useful in that case?’

TH ‘As far as I can see, FTL is a good thing, and producing it is definitely far more beneficial to society at large than, say, drafting instructions to counsel or parsing tax statutes*. The same, of course, goes for whitewashing rocks or drilling holes in your own toes with a Dremel.’

(*note the implied flattery)

Holt got his degree from Oxford – much in the news in the UK at present since it has been attacked by the government for elitism in admission criteria.

TH ‘Sigh. Yes, I went to Oxford, where I learned four useful things;

(a) Never go more than a quarter of a mile from home on a 2-stroke Yamaha motorcycle without a spare set of spark plugs and a plug wrench

(b) If you stuff balls of rolled-up newspaper into the pockets of a pool table, you can play all day for free, assuming nobody catches you

(c) An Oxford degree is only a handicap if you're dumb enough to tell people you've got one*. If you say that between the ages of 18 and 22 you were in prison, folks tend to take you at your word and don't check up on you, and the awful truth need never come out.

(d) A 7/16" standard diameter washer will fit in an old-style electricity meter if you tap it in gently with a soft-faced hammer.

Valhalla(*This was early on in the conversation and but I could not resist pointing out that the attendance of Oxford is mentioned in the biography on the back fly cover of his latest book – Valhalla).

WG ‘why then do you mention it on your book covers?’

TH ‘No idea, really. Convention, I guess.’

From Oxford Holt went to the College of Law and did the required post-graduate study to become a solicitor. Why that profession?

TH ‘Because I was very stupid and made a mistake; and it was the sort of mistake that gets harder to fix the longer you do nothing about it’.

WG ‘why was it a mistake for you?’

TH ‘Apart from a fondness for money verging on idolatry, I don't have much in common with, say, 99% of the lawyers I've come across in my time in the profession. I don't share their values, and they don't seem able to understand mine. Lawyers are predators in grey worsted’.

WG ‘Did you start writing in your spare time - I thought solicitors never got spare time?

TH ‘I started writing long before that (I paid my way through law school with the money from my first 2 novels) While I was lawyering, I used to get home around seven in the evening, sit around for a couple of hours to let the toxins drain out of my system, and start work about 9pm; went to bed between one and three in the morning, up again at 7am. I'm very lucky that way; I don't need much sleep. I follow the same pattern now I've escaped, except that I can spend the hours of daylight playing.

‘(I never did hold with sleep, anyway; terrible waste of time. I figure that by the time I'm 60, I'll have had ten years more useable life than anyone else my age.)

WG ‘Why your particular style of fantasy? Where did it come from?

TH ‘Comic fantasy has a long and honourable history, starting in the 5th century BC. The oldest deliberately funny writings that survive in Western literature are comic fantasy; the plays of Aristophanes (which I read as a kid; one of my greatest influences, probably)

‘Comic fantasy phases in and out of fashion; the last substantial wave before this one was in the 1930s and 1940s, with writers such as Eleanor Farjeon and Caryl Brahms & S J Simon (also very influential, as far as I was concerned). By the 50s comic fantasy went out of fashion over here (it lingered a bit longer in the USA in the form of comic science fiction) until Douglas Adams rediscovered comic SF in the 70s, showing publishers that there was a market for genre comedy. I was playing around with comic fantasy about that time, but when I was first in a position to pitch to an editor (after my first, non-fantasy, novel was accepted in 1982) I was firmly told that there was not and never would be a market for that kind of stuff. After my second Lucia sequel came out, I pitched another comic fantasy idea (which later became 'Expecting Someone Taller'), and my editor agreed to let me do it, mostly in order to shut me up and get me off his case.

‘I write this kind of stuff because it's the kind of stuff I write... For me, comedy is the knight's move in chess; you have to take two steps forward and one sideways to get where you want to go to, but you can jump over stuff that would otherwise get in the way.

WG ‘Okay, you said that you spent all those extra hours playing...I have to ask, doing what?’

TH ‘Bashing bits of hot metal with a hammer. I'm a barely competent but extremely enthusiastic hobby blacksmith’.

WG ‘(Sound of surprise!) How did you get into that?’

TH ‘Always wanted to, ever since I was a kid. A while back, I found a local smith who was prepared to put up with me hanging round the forge. I've still got a lot to learn, but I'm getting there.’

WG ‘And what do you do, house ornamenty stuff, gates, or shoe horses?

TH ‘None of the above; I like making *useful* stuff - hammers, tongs, chisels, garden tools, kitchen knives; the occasional sword or similar jeu d'esprit.’

WG ‘ I'm impressed - especially the bit about the 'occasional sword' - What do you do with them, surely more than hang on wall?’

WG ‘No room on the wall; too many bookshelves’.

WG ‘And do you use the hammers etc to build stuff? I love old tools - I have some wooden planes etc which I use when I can’

TH ‘I'm a tool junkie, and my garage is crammed with beautiful precision instruments, from humble screwdrivers up to & including two toolroom lathes and a Bridgeport vertical mill (not to mention the anvil, forge and furnace) They're all wasted on me, of course, to the point where I'm sure they whimper with pain and fear every time I pick them up or switch them on’

WG ‘But, getting back to writing, are you a disciplined writer’ -

TH ‘Ha!…Sorry. I'm feeling better now, honest. Please continue.’

WG ‘ie so > many hours/words a day, and how? I would guess you also spend > a fair time on the net, judging by speed of answers to my emails!’

TH ‘I try and do 2,500 words a day, every day of the year (I'm incredibly ostentatious about this on Christmas Day and New Year) Unfortunately, I'm a living embodiment of Benchley's Second Law ("A human being is capable of doing an infinite amount of work, so long as it's not the work he's supposed to be doing") - which means that I spend more time writing e-mails and getting involved in fiendishly abstruse and jesuitical arguments on Usenet than I ever devote to writing books.’

WG ‘And where do the ideas come from?’

TH ‘Mail order. The Sears company does a really good deal; 5 kilos of assorted ideas, some slightly damaged, for $9.99 plus shipping.

WG ‘You said you had no room on the wall; too many bookshelves. What sort of books?’

TH ‘Half work (reference, non-fiction &c) and half fun (collected works of my favourite writers; I'm an obsessive completist)’

WG ‘Aha! What sort of reference?

TH ‘Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology; Times Atlas; Engineering Workshop

Practice vols 1-4; OED; Traditional Bowyers' Bible; Winfield & Jolowicz on Tort; Wisden; that sort of thing.

WG ‘And who are your favourite authors?’

TH ‘Wodehouse, Runyon, Benchley, Lardner, Bramah, Thurber, Coren, H. Thompson, Sayers, Heinlein, Brahms & Simon, Pratchett, Christie, Homer, Milne. Loads of Star Trek novels (from before the Ordover years...)‘

WG ‘Do you mean the Blish etc novelisations or the ones written as spin-ffs? If so that surprises me, since I haven't thought a great deal of the ones I encountered (admittedly some years ago so they may well have improved)’

TH ‘There was a batch of pretty good ones in the late 80s and early 90s - writers such as Diane Duane, Julia Ecklar, John M Ford. The quality has plummeted over the last few years, and I've stopped bothering.’

WG ‘You are a regularly prolific writer - what is in the pipeline?’

TH ‘Working title; "Falling Sideways" (a simple love story...)’

WG ‘ In your usual style or Mills and Boon. When finished?’

TH ‘Writing Mills & Boon stuff is very difficult; far too difficult for me. You can't do it unless (on some level) you ‘believe’...’

‘It'll be finished when I've finished writing it.’

WG ‘Do you go to SF conventions?’

TH ‘I used to a few years back. These days, I'll turn up for an Eastercon at the Adelphi in Liverpool, but not much else’

WG ‘How did you get 'into' sf/fantasy - was there a pivotal moment.’

TH ‘No, not really. Like the man in Moliere who'd been talking prose for 40 years and never realised, I was writing 'fantasy' long before I knew that's what it was... It never even occurred to me that I was writing fantasy until the paperback of Expecting Someone Taller came out, with 'fantasy' printed in small letters on the back’

WG ‘What do you hope your books will be remembered for?’

TH ‘Their compact size, excellent mass-to-width ratio and aerodynamic qualities.’

WG ‘And, come to that, what do you hope you will be remembered for?’

TH ‘For more than five minutes. But that's pushing it.’

WG ‘ What was the first thing you wrote, and what the first thing published?’

TH ‘I can't remember the first thing I wrote; I was writing cute little stories and poems as soon as I'd figured out which end of the pen the black marks came out of. I've done my best to incinerate everything I could find that dates back to that era.

‘The first thing published was 'Poems By Tom Holt', a slim yellow volume knocked out by Michael Joseph when I was 12. As far as I'm concerned it falls into the category cited above (furnace fodder), but there are about 3,000 copies still unaccounted for. Ah, but Man's reach must exceed Man's grasp, or what's a Heaven for?’

WG ‘Poetry! What about?’

TH ‘Death, mostly. And sundry related topics’.

WG ‘How did the publication come about?’

TH ‘My mother send a bundle of the stuff to an agent; the agent saw the potential hype angle. I got interviewed on the TV and in the newspapers and bagged & tagged as a 'child prodigy'. All in all, it was a bad trip.’

WG ‘Was such a topic selected by early teenage angst, or some other reason - it's not the sort of thing which immediately leaps to the muse-mind of a 12 year old.’

TH ‘I guess it was something I wanted to write about at the time; it was a quarter of a century ago, and I can't remember exactly...’

WG ‘Was your mother a writer? Not every parent would think of sending her child’s poems off to be published.’

TH ‘She wasn't a writer then; she is one now, with about a dozen detective novels to her credit. She's also been a journalist and written TV reviews for the Stage (the theatrical trade paper; don't know if it's still going or not)’

WG ‘Do you still write poetry?’

TH ‘Absolutely not. A few song parodies from time to time, but for fun rather than publication. In general, however, poetry is one of the few nasty childhood habits I've managed to grow out of.

WG ‘Why do you have ‘lemming’ as part of your email address?’

TH ‘The lemming is my totem, blazon or animal guide, chosen by me as such as a token of respect for its tremendous intelligence and wisdom, relative to that of homo sapiens. After all; lemmings may congregate in vast hordes every five years or so and hurl themselves off the edges of cliffs into the sea, but no lemming ever went to war, built a nuclear reactor next to its burrow, beat up on a fellow lemming for having different-colour fur or voted for Tony Blair. We have a lot to learn from those little tykes.’

WG ‘ You're very good at avoiding really answering questions, aren't you?’

TH ‘Thank you. You're too kind’

WG ‘What did you have to eat last night?’

TH ‘Bread and cheese and a cup of tea.’

WG ‘That's very spartan- any particular reason?’

TH ‘I've never been particularly interested in food. Having to waste time eating it is bad enough, without frittering away more lifespan on cooking it.

WG ‘- so...what question should I have asked, and didn't?’

TH ‘What extremely valuable gift would you like us to buy you as a token of our gratitude for your co-operation?"

WG ‘The extremely broke FTL magazine hereby owes Tom Holt a suitable number of pints of good beer (or any alternate he might designate)’

TH ‘A nice strong cup of Darjeeling will do just fine (Can't remember when I last used Strong Liquor; about 18 months ago, something like that. I used to be a beer snob years ago, but I realised it simply wasn't worth the hangovers...)’

WG ‘Thanks muchly for your time.’